With Pentagon move, a shift in security-privacy balance?
The end of its TALON database on antiwar activists may signal more emphasis on civil liberties.
First came the Federal Bureau of Investigation's decision in the spring to implement stringent new guidelines to prevent agents from abusing their authority to issue national security letters, which can be used to gather information about Americans without their knowledge. Then in Congress, lawmakers voiced concern that the wiretapping authority they granted the Justice Department this summer may be too broad and needs to be revisited.Skip to next paragraph
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Most recently, the Pentagon announced last week that it is shutting down its TALON database, which held secret files on local antiwar activists.
Six years after 9/11, some analysts see these developments as signs that civil liberties are beginning to regain ground lost since the war on terror was launched.
While many security experts argue that the amorphous nature of the terrorist threat demands a comprehensive response, they also question the advisability of casting a wide net that infringes on Americans' privacy rights.
"There's clear evidence of abuse and that the pendulum has shifted too far in terms of eroding civil liberties, so these are all hopeful signs," says Matthew Robinson, professor of criminal justice at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. "But I think the pendulum has farther to swing, and [civil liberties may be eroded further] until some courageous leader comes forward and says, 'Enough.' "
The story behind the Pentagon's decision to close its TALON database illustrates the ongoing effort to determine exactly where and how that line between security and civil liberties should be drawn.
How TALON worked
TALON stands for Threat and Local Observation Notices. It is a database of files on potential threats against US military bases at home and abroad that are reported to military intelligence by civilians and service members. The idea was a kind of military neighborhood watch program. In 2005, the media reported that TALON was maintaining extensive files on local peace activists and students opposed to military recruiting.
That's when antiwar activist Kot Hordynski discovered the Pentagon had a file that listed his group, Students Against War, as a credible threat. The reason: It had organized a rally of 300 to 400 students who protested the presence of military recruiters on campus in April 2005.
At first he thought it was kind of cool. "As organizers who are always starved for recognition, we thought we were doing something right, pushing the right buttons," says the student at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "At the same time, it was a frightening experience to see our name in a Pentagon database. It really struck home."
The experience inspired Mr. Hordynski and his group to redouble their antiwar activity, but also to work to expose the Pentagon's database on US citizens. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and dozens of other peace organizations, they eventually forced the Department of Defense to release thousands of pages of files it had kept on peaceful antiwar activists. That prompted a congressional inquiry as well as allegations that the Pentagon was violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and its own guidelines.